So long as the Olympics held their distance, when they were still half a world and half a calendar away, the periodic dispatches detailing spasms of violence in and around southern Russia had little resonance; most of it getting chopped up by American wire editors and tucked into inside pages under the general euphemism of “unrest.”
Never mind that unrest at the source often included explosions and flying body parts.
But now, with the Games virtually upon us, unrest has gone from a foreign affairs euphemism to a tangible anxiety throughout North America, particularly among players and executives in the National Hockey League. One hundred and fifty-one NHL players are headed to Sochi for the 12-team Olympic hockey tournament that begins Feb. 12.
Security has long been an acute concern at the Olympics for reasons perfectly obvious and sometimes painfully, tragically evident.
That’s why the NHL painstakingly negotiated and eventually won the right to bring its own security detail to Sochi, but last I looked, the NHL had no ships.
I think the ships were the thing that brought hockey anxiety to its full volume, because the thought of the United States Navy positioning ships in the Black Sea to support the Russian government in the event of an Olympics security emergency is the kind of thing that can cause you to lace your skates the wrong way at the minimum.
In fact, the term The Black Sea is itself a bit unnerving, sitting there as it does surrounded by Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and various Russian outposts including Sochi on its eastern shore. That said, the ominous-sounding Black Sea has nothing on the sound of Black Widow, the altogether too flippant name assigned potential female suicide bombers, one of whom, Ruzana Ibragimova, is said to be still unaccounted for in Sochi less than two weeks from the opening ceremonies.
“It’s not worth it,” Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith told Fox Sports Arizona this week, explaining why he’s not taking his wife and kids to the Olympics. “They’re not gonna go. It’s not worth myself thinking, ‘Is she OK when I’m not with her?’ It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.”
Before last week’s Penguins-Canadiens entanglement, the captain of the Canadian Olympic team expressed some similar thoughts.
“(Security) crosses your mind when you see the things that are happening kind of close to it,” said Sidney Crosby. “I think you’re just trying to gather as much information as you can and figure out what’s going on, but from what we’re told, they’re doing a really good job of keeping things secure right (in the Olympics Village) there. It’s something you definitely think about.”
Not every objective opinion on Russia’s security preparations has been complimentary, which is why the U.S. government got into the ship-loaning business this week. That came after five countries — the U.S., Germany, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia — got hand-written correspondence threatening their athletes in Sochi. International terrorism experts designated those missives “not credible” and/or “a hoax.”
No one’s offered an official opinion yet on the video sent this week on which Islamic militants, claiming to have been the force behind last month’s suicide bombings that killed 34 people in Volgograd, tell Vladimir Putin to “expect a present,” if he allows the Olympics to proceed.
Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, tried to avoid voicing undue frustration with the growing tension around what for ardent NHL fans is likely the best part of any Winter Olympics.
“There’s only so much you can do when it comes to security at an Olympic event,” Daly told Yahoo Sports. “We negotiated for the ability to bring our own security professionals and they will be there, but at the end of the day, we have to rely on the organizing committee, the Russian government and the International Olympic Committee to ensure a safe environment for our athletes and guests.
“We are being briefed on a regular basis. There’s certainly a level of concern, but I can’t say that it’s been heightened by recent events. I would also say that we have been given no reason to doubt that everything possible is being and will be done to keep the Games safe.”
It was seven years ago that the 2014 Winter Games were awarded to Sochi, meaning the political temperature could probably not have been taken accurately for a time and place most of a decade off. That process, more than ever, has to weigh the projected security of the athletes, spectators, journalists and staffers against the host country’s ability to provide it.
Sochi looks for the moment like a roll of the dice.
Olympic hockey is supposed to be nerve-wracking. But not like this.